WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange officially kicked off its Christmas season with the annual holiday celebration Saturday, Dec. 5, which this year featured both the Holiday Open House and Old-Fashioned Christmas Tree Lighting.
Hundreds of residents shopped for gifts sold by dozens of vendors — many of whom were based in town — at the open house in the Community House gym throughout the day before witnessing the majestic tree lighting that evening on the Town Hall lawn, where one lucky raffle winner even took home a big-screen television. But that is not all that the daylong festivities offered.
Numerous residents experienced a historic West Orange trolley tour while many children had free pictures taken with the township’s resident Santa Claus, a.k.a. Bud Stacy, who told the West Orange Chronicle it is a joy each year to spread the Christmas spirit to the community’s youngest members.
Above all, the event gave residents the chance to escape their homes and connect with each other on a townwide level, Mayor Robert Parisi said. Having grown up in the township, Parisi said Christmas and the feelings of family, comfort and security that come with it have always been synonymous with West Orange for him. And as mayor, he said it is vital to have gatherings such as the Holiday Open House and Christmas Tree Lighting to facilitate those feelings as a way of uniting the rest of the community as well.
“The Christmas Tree Lighting and holiday celebration has always been one of my favorite events in town each year,” Parisi, who hosted the tree lighting, told the Chronicle in a Dec. 4 email. “It is always important to the township to have events and give people a chance to celebrate and honor traditions that we have in common. And it’s important to do that together.”
Michael Shauger and Leizyl Bonafe certainly exemplified the concept of community members connecting through the event. The two First Mountain Preschool parents recognized each other from school while holiday shopping and stopped to chat. Both lauded the township for holding the occasion, with Bonafe explaining that it is a great way for children to have fun while relatively new residents like her can learn more about the town.
Shauger agreed, adding that a gathering like the open house is a perfect opportunity for residents to become acquainted with people they otherwise might not have met.
“You can get out and mingle with your neighbors,” Shauger told the Chronicle. “It’s all about the holiday spirit too, so that helps create a sense of community.”
Stevie Tryson was also impressed with the township’s holiday festivities, of which she and her family were planning to take full advantage. By the time she spoke with the Chronicle, Tryson and her husband had already taken their son to visit Santa, and she said they were about to dive into some Christmas shopping. Later in the day, she said they were looking forward to attending the tree lighting.
On top of that, Tryson said she was simply enjoying the atmosphere the event provided. She explained that West Orange’s holiday festivities do a good job of putting everyone at ease, which is why it is so easy to connect with your neighbors there.
“This is a very relaxed way for people to meet each other,” Tryson said. “Maybe you wouldn’t say ‘Hello’ to someone when you’re walking past them on the street or standing next to them on line at the store, but here it’s creating an environment for people to talk to each other.”
Creating that spirit of togetherness was not the only reason for holding the Christmas extravaganza. As Recreation Director Bill Kehoe and Downtown West Orange Alliance Executive Director Megan Brill pointed out, a key component of the event every year is raising awareness for the downtown area and getting residents to check it out. In fact, Kehoe said the open house and tree lighting were paired this year as a way of attracting more people. To further encourage them, he said all attendees to the tree lighting received a coupon allowing them to take 15 percent off their meal at Benji’s Taqueria Mexican Grill, Tom’s or the Oak Barrel Pub if they stopped in for dinner that night.
But even if they did not get the chance to take advantage of the coupon, Brill said she hopes residents will still visit the township’s businesses. After all, she said, downtown stores are selling many of the same items people would shop for at the mall, but at a discount for the holidays. Plus, she said local shops can really benefit from receiving local support even after Christmas.
“It’s a really tough time for businesses in the winter months,” Brill told Chronicle in a Dec. 3 phone interview. “Things tend to slow down. So it’s really important that if you do come out and are eating out or buying things that you encourage local shopping.”
West Orange resident Gregg Hanchett came to the open house specifically to start his holiday shopping locally. And he was not disappointed. Hanchett told the Chronicle that he thought some of the vendors were very creative, adding that he had purchased scented lamps for his son and daughter-in-law. He also believed the event was a great way to encourage community members to get behind downtown businesses of which they might not have been aware.
“Anytime you get people out talking with each other and visiting each other’s businesses, I think everybody’s happier,” Hanchett said. “Everybody will take care of the community better and will just care for the future of the community.”
It was not just the downtown businesses that benefited from the Christmas festivities, though. Much of the West Orange-based vendors at the open house operate out of their homes. As a result, resident Avon representatives Jill Jeszeck, Lori Cell and Mary Clare McAlee said they appreciated the opportunity to interact with fellow community members and establish client relationships they can develop moving forward.
Resident Mary Kay representative Sylvia Marcano said she was happy to take part in the open house again so she could find more customers for the Adopt a Grandparent fundraiser, for which people could purchase a Mary Kay gift set that would be donated to a nursing home. Aside from that, Marcano said the event is a good idea because it keeps shoppers’ money within the community, which helps everyone in the long run.
As for Marco Thompson of That Embroidery Guy, he chose to participate for the first time this year for a simple reason: to let his fellow residents know where they should go the next time they need to personalize an item.
“I can tell the people that there’s someone like me in the community,” Thompson, who sold specially made lace ornaments for the event, pointed out. “I’m here to support them, and hopefully they can support me as well.”
In addition to raising awareness for local businesses, Council President Jerry Guarino said he hopes the success of the event will inspire residents and non-residents alike to get more involved with West Orange in general this holiday season. While Christmas may encourage philanthropy, the council president pointed out that its charitable spirit can extend all year. And he said helping one’s community is an excellent way of giving back.
“The whole idea of Christmas is that it’s not what you get, but what you give,” Guarino told the Chronicle. “When people come to events like this and get involved, they say ‘Gee, I would like to do this. I would like to give back to my community.’ Well, here’s an opportunity.”